WASHINGTON - In a gesture to a former rival, President Bush met at the White House yesterday with Sen. John McCain, whose unwavering demand for campaign finance reform could pose a direct challenge to Bush from within his own party.
Bush and McCain, bitter opponents in the Republican presidential primaries, spoke for about 45 minutes and explored their differences over how to clean up the way political campaigns are financed - a high-stakes and divisive issue in Washington.
McCain said after the meeting, which Vice President Dick Cheney attended, that he had had a "productive and good conversation" with the president. "I was able to get my point of view across and my sense of urgency that we take this up at an early time," McCain said.
Bush's spokesman said the president found the meeting "a very good session" and described McCain as "an ally on many issues" on Capitol Hill.
The Arizona senator wants a Senate vote no later than Easter on his bill, which would ban "soft money" - the unlimited, unregulated sums given to political parties by unions, corporations and wealthy individuals. His bill also would curb "issue ads" from outside groups or individuals that attack candidates in the final weeks of a campaign.
Siding with more conservative Republicans, Bush has opposed the bill, adding that he is open to other kinds of reforms.
How Bush manages McCain's cause could offer an early sign of whether the president will be able to maintain a Republican coalition to nudge his agenda through a narrowly divided Congress.
McCain has already signaled that he could become a headache for Bush. The senator, who emerged from his presidential campaign with a higher national profile, is deft at steering debate in Washington. He has thrust his favorite cause into the spotlight on the president's first week on the job, at a time when Bush is trying to spotlight his education reforms, unveiled Tuesday.
On Monday, McCain and his longtime Democratic ally on campaign finance reform, Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, reintroduced their bill.
"I am not interested in harming in any way the president of the United States' agenda," McCain said. "But I also have a mandate."
During the primaries, McCain won several states and drew limited but loud support from moderates, independents and some Democrats, many of whom said they saw him as a reformer who would diminish the role of special interests in Washington.
McCain says he retains support around the country and insists that, unlike last year, he now has the votes in the Senate to get his bill through Congress. A year ago, a similar version of the bill passed the House, but McCain fell just short of the 60 votes necessary to end a filibuster by opponents in the Senate, and the issue died.
The senator is pinning his hopes on the fact that Democrats picked up four Senate seats this year, and one Republican, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, has thrown his support to McCain's bill.
McCain, who says the measure will be harder to kill if it lands on Bush's desk early in his administration, is negotiating with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to schedule debate on the bill. If Lott stalls, McCain has said, he might try to tie up other legislation.
In turn, Lott and other conservatives have said they could stall McCain's bill by piggy-backing it with other legislation that might not pass. Conservatives also expressed concern this week that McCain seems to be usurping Bush's command of the agenda.
"I can understand Senator McCain wanting to get his legislation considered," said Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican. "I want to get my legislation considered. But in all fairness, George Bush was elected president, and I think the new president is due some deference in terms of considering his agenda."
Should he reject McCain's insistence on a soft money ban, Bush could find himself facing a crucial decision on whether to veto McCain's bill or alienate conservatives by signing it. A veto would likely kill the measure - its supporters lack the 67 votes needed to override a veto - but McCain could continue sending the legislation to the president. While campaign finance reform is not an issue that commands deep public interest, Bush would be in the unenviable position of appearing to back unlimited special-interest donations to the parties.
Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said yesterday that the president opposes portions of McCain's proposed ban on soft money and favors a provision to stop unions from giving dues to campaigns without the permission of employees. Fleischer declined to say whether Bush would veto McCain's bill in its current form, saying it was too early to say.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican who supported McCain for president, said moderates were watching closely how Bush treated the Arizona senator yesterday. "The meeting will set the tone for how Republicans in Congress will deal with difficult issues when Republicans are divided," Gilchrest said.
As governor of Texas, Bush was known for charming legislators who opposed him. If he is planning to do the same in Washington, McCain could be his first big test. As part of his effort to court lawmakers, Bush met yesterday with congressional leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, and Republicans Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
A former McCain staffer said: "No amount of charm is going to work. Senator McCain is going to stick to his guns and his priorities and promises. He's not a big compromiser when he feels it is principles being compromised."